Providence sister celebrates 100th birthday, 75 years in religious life

  • Written by Nathan Whalen 
  • Published in Local
Providence Sister Rita Ferschweiler with an elderly patient, circa 1991. Photo: Courtesy Providence Sisters Providence Sister Rita Ferschweiler with an elderly patient, circa 1991. Photo: Courtesy Providence Sisters

SEATTLE At age 100, and after three-quarters of a century in religious life, Providence Sister Rita Ferschweiler is still helping others.

Living at West Seattle’s St. Joseph Residence with more than 60 other retired sisters, Sister Rita spends time every day reading aloud to another sister who can’t see anymore.

“She’s really an excellent reader. She has a nice reading voice,” said Providence Sister Jacqueline Fernandes, superior and administrator of St. Joseph Residence.

Sister Rita in 1971
Sister Rita Ferschweiler in 1979, when she was the administrator of The DePaul and Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle. Photo Courtesy Providence Sisters

Before she was a reader, Sister Rita was a nurse in Washington, Alaska and Oregon (her home state), later becoming a hospital administrator. Sister Rita said she decided to become a nurse after high school, when she encountered the Sisters of Providence while working in a hospital.

“I thought that was what I would like to do — take care of people,” Sister Rita said.

She entered the Sisters of Providence in 1943, professing her first vows in November 1944. She received her nurse’s training at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Yakima and worked primarily as a medical-surgical nurse in Yakima, Seattle, Fairbanks and Anchorage.

Sister Rita earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Seattle University and “was content to remain in direct patient care,” according to a biography provided by the Sisters of Providence. But her superiors sent her to St. Louis University in Missouri for a master’s degree in nursing service administration.

In 1956, she went to work as a nurse at Portland’s St. Vincent hospital, operated by the Sisters of Providence. She later became director of nursing services, and in 1964 was named hospital administrator. She oversaw construction of a 451-bed hospital and medical center, now called Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.

“She worked very hard,” said Sister Jacqueline, who worked with Sister Rita in the late 1960s. “After we had dinner, she always would go downstairs to take care of the patients."

In 1971, The Oregon Journal newspaper named Sister Rita one of Oregon’s 10 women of accomplishment. She was the last Providence sister to serve as administrator of a Portland hospital. The following year, Sister Rita moved to Olympia, where she was a discharge planner at Providence St. Peter Hospital and helped at St. Michael Parish School.

In 1977, she became administrator at Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle, caring for the elderly. Other assignments included a term as her province’s councilor for ministry from 1985-88 and sister representative at St. Peter Hospital in 1991.

Sister Judith and Sister RitaProvidence Sister Rita Ferschweiler celebrated her 100th birthday on March 16 at St. Joseph Residence in West Seattle. Providence Sister Judith Desmarais, provincial superior, (at left) applauds Sister Rita at the party. Photo: Courtesy Providence Sisters

Sister Rita eventually returned to Portland, where she lived on the Providence Medical Center campus, continuing her volunteer ministry to patients, serving on boards, and reading books for visually impaired people. She has lived at St. Joseph Residence since 2011, but still misses Oregon. 

“I liked working there. I liked the people,” Sister Rita said. “Portland is home.”

The daughter of Oregon pioneers, Rita Ferschweiler was born March 16, 1918, in St. Louis, Oregon (north of Salem). The oldest of six children, she grew up on a Willamette Valley farm within walking distance of church. In high school, she attended Mount Angel Academy, a Catholic school operated by the Benedictine Sisters. Her father taught her how to drive, Sister Rita said, so she could drive herself and five classmates the 10 miles to school.

When entering religious life, she took the name Sister Mary Laureen, in honor of her parents (Marie and Lawrence), but later went back to her birth name.

At St. Joseph Residence, Sister Rita lives with other retired sisters from a variety of religious communities. She said she enjoys walking around the flatter parts of the neighborhood and helping the other sisters. “I’ve taken care of a lot of people in my life,” Sister Rita noted.

On March 16, the St. Joseph community helped Sister Rita celebrate as she turned 100 and marked her 75th year in religious life.

“Is this 2018? I guess that’s it then,” Sister Rita said of her milestone age. “I didn’t think anybody knew I had a birthday.”